Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Trump Medicine Show

Donald Trump's continued popularity among Republicans is something of a mystery. Republicans are supposed to be immersed in the Protestant Work Ethic -- best personified by the Horatio Alger narrative, where honesty and hard work are rewarded. Horatio Alger is a time honoured American archetype.

But Neal Gabler argues that there is another American archetype -- the flim flam man -- personified by characters like the two fraudsters Huck Finn and Jim encounter on their journey down the Mississippi, or by Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry or Meredith Willson's Harold Hill -- who is finally redeemed by the love a good woman. Gabler writes:

If the first set of values might be called “Algeresque,” after Horatio Alger, the popular 19th-century American author who wrote stories about poor ragamuffins rising to great wealth through hard work, this second set might be called “Barnumesque,” after P. T. Barnum, the 19th-century promoter, hoaxster and circus impresario, who played on his countrymen’s gullibility.

 Of course, no one wants to come right out and say that America is a land of hustlers, least of all politicians and pundits. It is a kind of sacrilege. Everyone prefers the Alger scenario of social mobility, which historian Henry Steele Commager described as one in which “opportunities lie all about you; success is material and is the reward of virtue and work.” This is one of the bulwarks of America. To say otherwise is to engage in class warfare, and class warfare, we are often told by conservatives, is a betrayal of American exceptionalism.

But as much a bulwark as this is, just about everyone also knows it isn’t exactly true — even, it turns out, Horatio Alger himself. “He constantly preached that success was to be won through virtue and hard work,” writes his most perspicacious biographer, John Tebbel, “but his stories tell us just as constantly that success is actually the result of fortuitous circumstance.” Or luck, so long as you aren’t lucky enough to be born rich. Those idlers — the Trumps of the world — are Alger’s villains.

The problem with the American Dream is that it's based on a lie. Just as the claim that "all men are created equal" overlooked the original sin of slavery, the claim that hard work and virtue are always rewarded is equally untrue.

So, instead of beating them, a significant number of Americans think it's better to join them. And, therefore, they have hitched their future to Donald Trump's medicine show.

Image: Pinterest


the salamander said...

.. for a few fleeting moments
you had me feeling depressed
I read your blog twice tho..
hardly unusual..

A monarch butterfly drifted by during 2nd read
flitting here n there due to sparrows
and a Red Admiral was impertinant enuff
to alight on my right cheek..

I feel there is grass roots movement afoot
we have exemplars on twitter & blogging
These exemplars remind me of polar bears..
the only creature I truly fear..
(OK .. the Leopard Seal too)

The nature of exemplars & apex predators
is to help shape environments as healthy ones..
balanced dontcho know.. & I know.. you know..

The end run of the twisted carpet baggin & fake evangelicals
the so called self styled wannabe but neverwillbe 'christians'
seems more and more shrill, loud, defensive.. juvenile..

I'm optimistic today.. I see big undercurrent..
As always.. thanks..


Owen Gray said...

I take hope from Greek Tragedy, salamander. Eventually, hubris catches up with all of us.

Steve said...

Trump is good for bidness, thats all the Republicans care about, making as many fast bucks as possible in one lifespan.

Owen Gray said...

A business which sells its assets will eventually go bankrupt, Steve. Trump has considerable experience with bankruptcy.

The Mound of Sound said...

I came across an op-ed today that cast Trump's devout followers as a cult. It's not a difficult argument to make. Their narrow single-mindedness, and their ability to filter out anything that conflicts with their Trump worship is pretty cultish. I can see those with a disposition toward the faith-based, belief driven outlook could transfer that blind fealty to a guy like Trump. How else can one explain evangelical fundamentalists flocking to a man with the sexual appetites of a goat, a self-admitted deviant and perhaps even a serial sex offender? How can those people see in him something to be revered?

Owen Gray said...

Good question, Mound. Perhaps the Trumpists are 21st century Moonies. At bottom, they're desperate and beyond Reason.

John B. said...

But it works for the upmarket hucksters, and it always has. And it seemed to work for many of the common slugs too, at least for a couple of generations. Eventually both the newer and old-stock underwriters of the huckster class decided, as it was inevitable they would, that their quest for it all couldn't continue as nature would dictate until they focussed on reclaiming what was theirs. No boarding-house reach can be restrained indefinitely, especially when it's become an attribute of national pride. Anyway, it wasn't much of a setback as interruptions go.

When Trump talks about "making America great again", just what historic period of greatness does he have in mind? Or what period is he attempting to bring to the collective mind of his following? Is it the 1790s, 1830s, 1880s or 1930s? How about the civil war? How great was that? All of that's ancient history. The historical period in question would probably have occurred at some time within the living memory of most of his audience members or of their older close acquaintances who could have alluded to that greatness through direct experience. Mythologizing aside, my guess is that falls somewhere between WW2 and the full ripening of Reaganism.

Has anybody figured out that the libertarians have been calling the shots for the last thirty years, and all that's ever likely to change is that they'll discover more shots to call and more hucksters to help them do it? If nothing else, some of them probably aren't pedophiles.

Owen Gray said...

I suspect, John, that Trump is talking about the fifties and sixties -- when separate but equal was alive and well. And everyone knew that what that really meant was separate and unequal.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

I find Trump's persona, rhetoric and mantras to be sanctimonious, generally on a grade-school level, and as heart-felt as brick wall.
How anyone can take this obvious charlatan, who---in spite of his media experience---couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, seriously in any way ...
...I think a lot of people have just "given up" (in general) around here ...

Owen Gray said...

Unfortunately, your final observation may be quite true, Tal. Trump's best ally is indifference.

Steve said...

People still think Reagan was a great President. When in fact he robbed America of its future.

Owen Gray said...

Which is to say, Steve, that he was a better actor than people gave him credit for.